Stories from Medieval times have shaped our understanding of this classic Christmas figure.
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century. He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation.
The Naughty List: St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Fast travelling: Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
St Nicholas had a history of teleporting about on his own — often showing up in the nick of time when people ask for his help. As the patron saint of sailors, he often did this out at sea. In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home. Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer: None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying. The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears: A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So, with Santa Claus once again coming your way, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. See the following ‘Source’ link.
Nobody goes to St Peter and St Paul, Tunstall by accident for it stands in a landscape of narrow, high-hedged lanes and a rolling landscape that dips to meet the rivers, the aspect becoming flatter and bleaker the further east one goes. Apart from the little ferry at Reedham, there is no way of crossing the Yare and so this area remains isolated and the visitor really is on the far side of the back of the beyond. The church is a mile from Halvergate, along a straight, narrow lane where there is couple of houses. That’s it, pretty much, except that further east of Tunstall, and for almost five miles, there is nothing but the marshes where there are no roads, houses, people; that is until the river can be crossed, changing from almost quiet and isolated world to the brash and noisy Great Yarmouth which sits slap bang on the coast.
When this church first built, it served a coastal village which overlooked a great estuary, serving as a beacon for shipping. But the estuary was eventually drained to become grazing land, and the church found itself inland with a tower which has long been a ruin. What remains of it now overlooks an empty and equally shattered nave, open to the elements and a shadow of what it once was in Catholic England before Protestant Reformation asserted itself. What was once a big church soon found out that there would never be enough parishioners to fill it and so it and the parish in which it stood was absorbed into the larger Halvergate and the building here fell into disuse.
We know from a crude plaque above the entrance that the chancel was restored by the Jenkinson family early in the 18th century and that the chapel was extended eastwards and a pretty window added in the 1860s. Since then nothing seems to have been touch and the ruin is, today, maintained by the local community and supported by a charitable trust. Visitors are, of course, welcome but they should expect nothing more than a church interior which is rather dark, gloomy and with little historical interest; the sky taking the place of the roof. But of course, according to Simon Knott:
“that doesn’t matter. You come here for the atmosphere, a sense of the presence of God – out here where the land takes over, the silence, and perhaps, a very rustic feeling of what it might have been like to live in 19th century rural Norfolk.”
Inevitably perhaps, remote churches are particularly prone to fall victim to ghostly tales and myths by superstitious folk who look for meaning in everything around them. Tunstall church and its past small community were no exception. How many stories might there have been about such a place as Tunstall – no one knows. However, at least two versions of one tale survived the passage of time and these have been told and re-told probably countless times; each teller putting his or her slant on the detail; probably that’s why here we have two versions. The first goes something like this:
There was once a fierce fire at the Church of St Peter and St Paul at Tunstall. We know not when – but it did. We are told that as the flames brushed close to the stone walls and the church building began to crack and collapse, its parishioners feared that nothing would remain of the church that they loved; a church that had been a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which was replaced by the lonely marshland that now stretches towards Great Yarmouth.
Although the fire ravaged the church its bells were left unscathed, even after falling on to the floor below; some people saw some meaning behind what was to them a minor miracle – their bell actually escaped the blaze. The topic became the re-hot epicentre of a fierce row that erupted between the local Parson and the St Peter & St Paul’s churchwardens; both parties battling over who should have them.
Now the story goes on to relate that while this argument raged, the Devil took the opportunity settle the matter in his favour. He slipped effortlessly into the still smouldering and red-smoking timbers of the bell chamber and spirited the bells away. But not without the Parson noticing, for he was a godly man. He hastily began to exorcise the Devil as this heathen creature, together with his loot, began to dissolve into the distance: “Stop, in the name of God!” called the Parson, “Curse thee!” cried the Devil as he sank into the earth, towards his underworld. In his wake a boggy pool of water, known nowadays as ‘Hell Hole’, appeared on the surface and remains there to this day. It is still said that in the summertime, ominous bubbles can sometimes be seen rising to the surface; past folk attributed this phenomenon to the stolen bells which they said were still sinking on their endless journey through a bottomless passage to hell.
A second version of the same tale has both the parish priest and the churchwardens planning separately to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils. Turning up at the same time both parties clashed as each tried to take the bells for themselves. Again, as they quarrelled, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them. The priest and the churchwardens immediately forgot their row and joined together to chase whatever this fiend was, but just as they appeared to be gaining on this almost ghostly creature, it vanished into the earth, still clutching the bells. Again, behind it, a dark pool appeared from which bubbles rose for many years thereafter, marking the spot where the bells disappeared and less than a mile west of Tunstall.
Less than a mile west of Tunstall is a long strip of marshy woodland called, in part, ‘Hell Carr’, and near this alder clump was the boggy pool known as ‘Hell Hole’. They do say that sometimes, on quiet nights, the sound of muffled bells can still be heard drifting across the bogs and marshland towards the church from whence they were stolen.
In Roman times the River Bure flowed into a large estuary extending from Acle to present-day Great Yarmouth; Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk shows the then coastal villages of Tunstall, Halvergate and Wickhampton on a spur of higher ground that was surrounded by Moulton Bog (west), Acle Wet Common (north) and the Halvergate Marshes (east). According to old records the church had fallen into disrepair by 1704; the chancel arch was bricked up in 1705 and a plaque above the doorway into the chancel informs that it was rebuilt by Mrs Elizabeth Jenkinson. More repairs were carried out in 1853. In 1980 the church was declared redundant and a Trust was formed to help repair and maintain what remains of the church: the chancel is still intact and visitors are welcome.
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The oldest part of Hellesdon is along Low Road, on the outskirts of Norwich and away from the vast, and all too familiar, Hellesdon housing estates on the other side of the Drayton Road. The village and its parish church lay in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon, beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital; this relatively small area still preserves something of its former rural character, despite its proximity to both the estates and modern Costessey. It is indeed fortunate to be on the fringe of the present-day Hellesdon community; for if it were to be in its centre then the original village would, by now, be suffocated by what must be a case of over development – a continuing trend one would suspect, that can only get worst. On the face of it – and so far, the village and its parish church of St Mary’s are indeed the fortunate ones!
St Mary’s is not the grandest or prettiest church to be found in Norfolk, indeed, some might feel that it is somewhat odd – from an architectural point of view that is! St Mary’s is small but tall for its size – if that makes sense? Furthermore, most parts appear disproportionate to the other. Take the southern facing porch for instance; it appears too tall for such a squat Saxon Nave, and with quite small and simple windows which let light enter the very small room over the main porch entrance; this, in turn, allows access into the body of the church. Entry to the small elevated room above the porch is via an external stair turret, as seen to the left of the porch. As for the lead-covered bell turret; well, this struggles in its attempt to look like a spire, above the short ‘stumpy’ Nave which, in turn, is not helped by the addition of a north aisle – all be it having been built way back in the 14th century.
St Mary’s has, in the distance past, been referred to as the ‘church without land’ and is recorded as far back as in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is also believed, by some at least, that the old church or chapel that stood on this site marked the spot where King Edmund was interred and martyred in 869. One version of the story goes like this:
In 985, Abbo of Fleury, who at Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) compiled the ‘Life of St Edmund’, in which he writes of hearing the Archbishop relate a story that came from a young man who had heard it from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. On his capture, Edmund was whipped and tied to a tree, and shot with arrows. He was then beheaded and his head thrown into a bramble thicket in Hegelisdun Wood – hence the association with Hailesduna, present-day Hellesdon? The King’s head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and according to the story, the body was buried in a small chapel built nearby for the purpose. The site of the chapel is believed, again by some, to be where the present church of St Mary’s stands. However, some suggest otherwise, with Lyng (only a few miles away) offered up as one possibility!
Joe Mason wrote a blog back in 2015 when he said: “……..I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s [Edmund] death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described took place. In the manuscript [see previous quote] the location that was attacked by the invading Danes was a few miles downstream from Lyng at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historians. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk……The monk goes on to say that the King was buried a few miles away from Hellesdon, and a humble chapel was erected over his tomb [at Lyng?]. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at the place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and to this day everyone is unsure where…..”
Joseph C. W. Mason’s latest book ‘St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066’ (see the above link) says so much more on the subject.
Not to put too finer a point on it – this story remains one of dispute, depending whether you live in Norfolk or Suffolk. But Hellesdon did stake its claim when images of St Mary’s Church, the dead body of King Edmund, and the wolf that stood guard over Edmund, found their way on to the village sign.
It used to be thought that the whole of the present church was 14th century, but now historians recognise that both the Nave and Chancel are much earlier – possibly between 1040 and 1120. The clue lies in the fact that both these parts of the church are built with whole flints laid in mortar, whereas the walls of the 14th century North Aisle are built of ‘knapped’ flints – whole flints having been cut to reveal flat shiny Surfaces.
St Mary’s may well have languished in insignificancy, or even faded completely from history, had it not been for a group of 14th century benefactors. One happened to be John de Heylesdon, he being a local man who became a citizen and merchant of London; he was supported by his wife Joan. Then there were John’s parents, Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice; following close behind was Walter de Berney, yet another local man who also became a citizen and merchant of London – but he reaching the heights of Sheriff there in 1360.
The church might also be grateful to John de Heylesdon for its bell, which is the oldest surviving in Norwich and an item which, along with the contruction of the bellcote and steeple, was probably funded by de Heylesdon. This belief in his generosity is supported by the fact that this solitary bell is inscribed “JOHNES DE HEYLESDON ME FECIT FIERI IN HONORE MATRS CRESTI WILELLMVS DE NORWYCO ME FECIT” – Translated as ‘John de Helesdon caused me to be in honore of the Mother of Christ. William of Norwich made me’. As for its sound; well, this has been familiar to the Hellesdon community for generations, but it is probably very likely that few have ever actually seen it as access to the bellcote is very restricted, and in this day and age deemed perilous.
According to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones, who compiled a very readable booklet, titled ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ (and from which the historical content of this blog is largely based – incidentally, copies of which can be purchased at the church for a mere £2 donation); also included reference to another incumbent of St Mary’s:
“In 1362/63 the three men [mentioned above] obtained the manor and advowson – the right to present a clergyman to the living. It appears that Richard de Heylesdon had died by 1379 when the other two men presented Richard de Taseburgh to the living. They could have followed the example of other church benefactors and replaced the old building [St Mary’s] with one entirely new. However, it seems they loved the building, which even then, was old and contented themselves by making additions to it.”
These additions came in the form of a newly constructed north aisle and, it is believed, a two-storey porch on the south side of the chancel. Credit for these must clearly go to John de Heylesdon and his group of fellow benefactors. The addition to the 14th century north aisle runs the entire length of the church and, in effect, doubles its size. Of course, at the time of construction, little thought could have been given to the aesthetic nature of having an additional wing on only one side of the church, along with a disproportionate sized porch on the opposite south side; these only contribute to the overall ‘odd’ appearance of the present-day building.
On the outside, St Mary’s is pleasantly surrounded on all four sides by a neatly kept churchyard, broken only by one path on the north side which connects the church proper with the church hall, a less than well-kept car park, but a neatly kept churchyard extention beyond. On the south side a path connects the front entrance to a war memorial on the right, a small parking area with graves beyond, and the front porch to the left.
Into the porch and one is met with a neat, clean and plain looking enclosure which because of its simplicity has something of a calming effect as one prepares to enter into the nave beyond. On the porch ceiling are two bosses of a man and a woman – who are they the visitor might well ask. No one really knows, but one could reasonably speculate that they are perhaps the portraits of John and Joan de Heylesdon who, together with other benefactors, came to the rescue of St Mary’s centuries ago.
Again, according to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones: “the construction of the porch partly obstructed one of the original nave windows which, when viewed from the churchyard shows that part of the window was filled in. What is not so obvious is that the other part of that window still exists, as an alcove in the room over the porch. This small but charming room, with its lovely views of the southern part of the churchyard and the Wensum Valley beyond, its fireplace and chimney with its ‘squint’ (which at one time gave a view of the high altar) is now used by the Sunday School. There can be few Sunday Schools priviledged to have accommodation of such character.”
Stepping inside, one can see a well-kept interior which, nevertheless, is somewhat austere, given its narrowness and height. It begs the question as to what does this church really need in this day and age? But this question doesn’t detract from some of the attractive aspects of this church. Take the low-sided window in the south wall of the chancel for instance one of around fifty such windows to survive in Norfolk Churches. We are told that in medieval times it would have had a wooden shutter through which, during the daily celebration of Mass, a handbell would be rung so that those working at their tasks in the fields, or their homes, could pause, cross themselves and so take part in the service. Fortunately, this particular window has not been filled in; however, in 1858 when this window was unglazed, thieves entered through it, after which, it was glazed but the shutter and ironwork retained. Sometime thereafter the wooden shutter itself was removed and in 1953 a beautiful stain-glass window was installed, depicting the Virgin Mary and Child; this replaced the window damaged by bombing in 1942. Despite this, in 1987 it was vandalised, but was quickly repaired with an external transparent screen being mounted to prevent further assaults.
The present two-manual organ on the north side of the church was built by F. Browne and came from St Mary’s Church in Eastwell, Kent in 1949. Initially, the organ console was placed in the north aisle itself so that the organist sat with his back to the congregation. The carved lattace screen depicting the Benedicite was positioned to mask the organ pipes. The console was later moved to its present position so that the organist now sits behind a stone screen with his back to the chancel and the choir. For a while, the Benedicite screen looked somewhat isolated until an oak-sided altar and furnishings were place below the screen in 1970.
John de Heylesdon was granted his wish to be buried in St Mary’s, alongside the tomb of his parents which was originally situated in what was then the Chantry; it and three other tombstones remained there until 1949 when they were moved into the main north aisle proper in order to make way for the organ. Set in the floor of the north aisle and protected by a blue carpet are the brasses to the memory of John de Heylesdon and Joan his wife; theirs is written in Latin; that of his parents are written in Norman French.
Despite what has been said about this church, it remains lovely place for many and, thank goodness, it has a special character of its own which needs preserving; the church is unique and clearly provides an invaluable service to the Hellesdon community – all be it from its fringes. With this in mind, would the thoughts of a visitor be admissible? Such as one who suggests that the powers-to-be may have a mind to consider the replacement of its Victorian pews with ‘flexible’ seating more in keeping with present-day needs.
Those who may feel that this suggestion would be sacrilege should ponder on the fact that many church pews date from just the 19th century before when, churches and their interiors were more open and flexible in their use. It is only over the last 150 years or so that congregations have had to experience rigid pews; this period of time has been but minuscule in the context of the time church worship has been in existence. So, has the time come to get rid of pews? Certainly, with St Mary’s, the present access along the central aisle, together with the amount of space in and around the point where the nave meets the chancel, suggests possible problems for the likes of wedding ceremonies and funerals – heaven forbid that any pall-bearer should ever trip over!
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The Battle of North Walsham was a medieval battle fought on 25 or 26 June 1381, near the town of North Walsham in the English county of Norfolk, in which a large group of rebellious local peasants was confronted by the heavily armed forces of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. The battle is significant for being the last occurrence of any major resistance during the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Despenser succeeded in suppressing the rebellion that broke out throughout East Anglia that summer. His force at first consisted of his own retinue, but numbers swelled as aristocrats saw both his victories and the harsh retribution meted out to the rebels. He moved across East Anglia towards Norwich and then onwards to North Walsham to deal with the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, the so-called ‘King of the Commons’. At North Walsham the rebels were decisively defeated by Despenser’s men. Medieval chroniclers differ in their accounts of exactly what happened at North Walsham. After the battle, Litster was captured and executed by Despenser, but the records of the time and subsequent histories disagree on the fate of his rebel army.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a major rebellion that spread throughout medieval England during the summer of that year. Its causes are complex. The drop-in population caused by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348, resulted in an acute labour shortage and consequently, higher wages. The Statute of Labourers (1351) was a law enacted during the first parliament of Edward III, to make labour laws and their intended enforcement more precise and detailed, and also to allow the government to control wages. It had the effect of making life more difficult for peasants, but more profitable for the wealthy landowners. Further discontent erupted from the behaviour of those nobles who ruled on behalf of the boy-king Richard II, and also from the position of the church; as many priests were ill-educated, and the bishops and abbots themselves were landowners, it was generally hated by the common people. Feelings were stirred up by rebellious priests such as John Ball, who criticised the church wherever the common people flocked to him to listen to his words.
The Revolt began in Essex, following the introduction of a succession of highly unpopular poll taxes levied against the English population. In 1377 the expense of the Hundred Years’ War had caused the government to introduce a poll tax of four pence. By 1380 this had tripled, but as many refused to pay, revenues dropped. The imposition of a third poll tax in 1381 prompted unrest in Essex and Kent, which then spread all over England. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle, the ‘evil actions’ of the commons in both Essex and Kent were ‘because of the exceptionally severe tenths and fifteenths and other subsidies lightly conceded in parliaments and extortionately levied from the poor people’. Most serious of all were events that occurred in London on 13–15 June. During the summer, rebels from Kent and Essex marched to London and, once admitted to the city, managed to capture the Tower of London. King Richard, who had promised to agree to all the demands of the peasants, met the rebels outside the city, where the peasants’ leader, Wat Tyler, was killed and the rebellion was ended. Once they were defeated it became clear to the rebels that they had failed to gain Richard’s support. Whilst the king was at Waltham, in Essex, a proclamation was issued condemning the rebels and denying that he had ever approved of their actions. At Waltham, Richard refused to ratify the promises he made, as he believed they had been extorted by force, adding, “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain”, and threatening vengeance upon those who had rebelled.
The rebellions in Essex, Kent and London spread to many other English counties. In Norfolk, the rebellion started on 14 June, when a group of rebels from Suffolk reached the county, and spread westwards towards the Fens and north-eastwards towards Norwich and Yarmouth. As in other parts of the country there was widespread unrest, during which property and official documents were destroyed and several individuals were summarily executed.
Henry le Despenser (c. 1341–1406) was an English nobleman who in his early life had been a soldier in Italy, and who in 1370 became Bishop of Norwich. He obtained a reputation as the ‘Fighting Bishop’ after playing his part in suppressing the Norfolk rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt, and later embarking on an ill-fated enterprise for Pope Urban VI, who in 1382 employed him to lead a crusade in Flanders against the supporters of the anti-pope Clement VII. For his defeat at the siege of Ypres (1383), Despenser was impeached in Parliament, attainted and deprived of his lands. He later regained his lands and favour with King Richard II of England. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire and the military campaign that followed resulted in Richard’s abdication. Despenser remained true to Richard: he was subsequently imprisoned, but was afterwards reconciled with the new king. Henry le Despenser died in his diocese at North Elmham on 23 August 1406.
Little is known of Geoffrey Litster (also named by medieval chroniclers as Iohanne Lyttestere and Jekke Litster), a moderately wealthy dyer from the village of Felmingham in Norfolk. He is first recorded in the returns made by the collectors of the 1379 poll tax in Norfolk. As peasants, he and his men would have been both untrained and unequipped to fight Despenser’s fully armed and trained force. Geoffrey Litster was captured after the battle and executed soon afterwards at North Walsham.
Events in Norfolk Before the Battle: During the summer of 1381, insurrection spread from the south-east of the country to other parts of England, including the diocese of Norwich, where the rebellion lasted less than a fortnight. On 14 June a group of rebels reached Thetford, and from there the revolt spread over south-western Norfolk towards the Fens. At the same time the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, moved across the north-eastern part of the county and tried to raise support throughout the local area. Over the next few days, the rebels converged on Norwich, Lynn and Swaffham. Norwich, then one of the largest and most important cities in the realm, was taken and occupied by Litster and his followers, who caused considerable damage to the property and possessions of anyone they perceived as an enemy (such as poll tax collectors and important officials) once they managed to enter the city. The Norwich rebels then travelled to Yarmouth, destroying legal records and landowners’ possessions, while other insurgents moving across north-east Norfolk destroyed court rolls and taxation documents. There were numerous incidents of pillage and extortion across the whole county.
The Anonimalle Chronicle gives a clear account of the unrest in East Anglia. On hearing of the rebellion, Henry le Despenser acted swiftly, moving through Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk from his home in Burley, Rutland. His armed force initially consisted of his personal retinue, but ultimately became a much larger force consisting of many knights and other men who had previously not dared to confront the rebels. According to the historian Edgar Powell, Henry Dispenser undertook the task of dealing with the revolt in his diocese and punishing the rebels. He was involved in crushing rebellions at Peterborough and elsewhere, before moving on to suppress the revolts in Cambridge. The authorities were alerted to the call in Norfolk for men to join the revolt in the name of Litster. On 17 June the rebels from the north and east of the county assembled on Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich: shortly afterwards, Sir Robert Salle, who had come out of the city to speak with the commons, was killed. According to Thomas Walsingham, the knight died soon after he was ‘knocked on the head by a rustic who was one of his own serfs’. The rebels then entered Norwich and wreaked havoc, destroying property and killing several prominent citizens. Other houses and church properties within the county (such as at Yarmouth) were attacked by the rebels at this time.
Geoffrey Litster was at Thorpe Market on 21 June and by the next day Despenser had reached nearby Felmingham. Hearing that the rebels were close, Despenser travelled the short distance from Felmingham to North Walsham Heath, where he encountered Litster and his men.
The Battle of North Walsham and its aftermath (1381): There are no eyewitness accounts of the battle that was fought at North Walsham on 25 or 26 June 1381. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham related that there was a fierce engagement at North Walsham Heath, south of the town, in which “the warlike Bishop” led a successful attack on the rebels’ entrenched position. The Escheators’ Inquisitions for the period that name Litster also included the names of rebels from North Walsham who were killed, giving strong evidence that the rebels suffered a severe defeat.
According to Thomas Walsingham, the rebels were routed as they fled through woodland and cut down as they were found. Writing in the 19th century, Walter Rye quoted a local man, “They dew say a’mazin’ lot of men are buried in that pightle.” The local belief that the parish church at North Walsham was the scene of a bloodbath after the battle cannot be substantiated using historical documents. According to The Book of Illustrious Henries, written by the 15th-century historian John Capgrave, very little fighting took place. The chronicler related that:
“But by the good management of the Bishop, and of other men who had assembled there, the whole people surrendered, rejoicing that they might withdraw in peace. Jack Litster himself, leaping over a wall, hid himself in a corn-field”.
Inevitably the rebels’ ‘king’ was found. Walsingham and Capgrave agree that after Geoffrey Litster’s capture, he was taken to North Walsham and was there hung, drawn and quartered. According to Capgrave’s chronicle:
“The traitor was sought and found; he was captured and beheaded; and, divided into four parts, he was sent through the country to Norwich, Yarmouth, and Lynn, and to the site of his mansion; that rebels and insurgents against the peace might learn by what end they will finish their career”.
Walsingham wrote an account of the mercy shown by the bishop to Litster during his execution:
“After hearing his confession and absolving him by virtue of his office, he followed him to the gallows, showing, although he had overcome him, a deed of kindness and piety, for he supported his head lest it should be bruised by the ground when he was being drawn to the hanging”.
Litster’s widow Agnes was later pursued by the authorities and was made to settle his outstanding debts (for the sum of 33 shillings and nine pence).
Commemoration of the Battle:
The site of the battle is one of only five battlefields in Norfolk that are recognised by Norfolk County Council. The battle was commemorated by three medieval stone crosses: one is on private land; another (now a stump) was relocated by North Walsham Urban District Council in 1932 and can be found near the roadside by the town’s water towers; the third cross was moved and used as a parish boundary marker. It is situated on Toff’s Loke, off Norwich Road.
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Hidden from the busy roads around Holt is a hint of a prosperous past; a past that comes in the form of a ruin of a once-magnificent manor house which was originally the home to the Heydon family. This ruin is a hidden gem, now owned by English Heritage; the guardians of not only what remains of brick, stone, flint and mortar, but of a place that boasts a very curious caretaker – that of a spectral sentry!
It is Baconsthorpe Castle of which I speak, a peaceful place standing proud in the middle of open meadows and farmland with an impressive moat and lake offering an image of its lost grandeur which once was lent to this gentle corner of Norfolk. What meets the eye is also a stony reminder of how far one can fall from grace.
The Heydons began building work on the fortified manor house in 1450, adding extensions as their wealth grew. The person who started the whole project was lawyer, Sir John Heydon who was born the son of William Baxter, a peasant in Heydon. It is thought that Sir John changed his family surname to his village name to disguise his humble beginnings. In time, Sir John Heydon was appointed Recorder of Norwich in 1431, but soon became so unpopular with townsmen that he was dismissed as Recorder by May 1437; he was also accused of giving the City’s documents to Norwich Cathedral priory during a dispute. It was clear that John was, by nature and profession, an unscrupulous lawyer, hard man and opportunist; as an old Norfolk rhyme states: “There never was a Paston poor, or a Heydon a coward.” It also seemed to matter not to John that there was always a possibility that he may need those around him to help him see off enemies! One of these was Lord Moleynes whom John was to incite when he laid claim to the Paston Estate at Gresham, a claim that resulted in Margaret Paston and a dozen retainers being attacked by a mob of around 1,000. John also clashed with the Paston’s patron, Sir John Fastoff in disputes of property.
If turbulent relationships was not enough, John Heydon, during the intensive Wars of the Roses, often switched political allegiances to serve his own means. However and despite being also linked to extortion, duplicity and underhand tactics, John Heydon proved to be an astute survivor. At least two of those close to him were beheaded but John managed to not only stay alive but managed to retain his seat in Baconsthorpe, his property portfolio and his wealth.
The Heydons lived at Baconsthorpe for 200 years, their fortune built on the wool industry. But the family were poor estate managers and Christopher Heydon, who died in 1579, left his son William with growing debts. It was him and his eldest son Christopher who were the ones who wrought the family’s downfall; both were hot-tempered and clashed badly. Christopher lived at Saxlingham Hall with his wife Lady Mirabel. William was forced to sell off parts of the manor house.
In the late 16th or early 17th century, an ornamental mere was created to the east of the moat and formal gardens were created, but by the mid-17th century, the insolvency of successive Heydons forced them to demolish most of the castle and sell the stone, some of which ended up at Felbrigg Hall. The remains of the castle was sold to merchant Daniel Bridges in 1673. The gatehouse was eventually converted into a private dwelling and occupied until 1920 when it collapsed and the building left to decay.
There is so much more to the history of the Heydons and all of it would be very interesting but, unfortunately, there is not enough space here to document it. However, there is another side to Baconsthorpe that not many know about; it may surprise and intrigue you. It is that when visitors come to the castle and wander through the shattered remains to the moat, some will witness the silence broken by the unmistakeable sound of stones breaking the still waters – stones clearly thrown from some height! This and the sight of ripples spreading to either side and along the moat may well cause confusion with a few, but on turning inward to the ruin they will see clearly from where the stones were thrown. Not only that, but they would not fail to catch sight of a ghostly sentry or medieval soldier standing on the castle walls, throwing these stones – as if to pass the time maybe? A few visitors may well be startled but, always remember, no one has ever reported feeling threatened by this stone-throwing spirit!
So be at ease, for this experience is only a further reminder that a spectral sentry was, at one moment in the distant past, detailed to be on guard at Baconsthorpe. There is every possibility, as things stand, that this lone soul may well stay there until such time as a counter order is issued from the appropriate authority for him to stand down. Until then……………….!
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The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.
Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.
The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.
The work: Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.
R.F.Carrodus researched 19th century rural practices around the Horning area and found that the traditional broadland turf, certainly at that time was three and a half inches square, and two or three feet long; he also eatimated that to dig up a thousand turves a day was regarded as a good day’s work, although some people claimed to be able to dig twenty turves a minute. The geographer C.T.Smith who did all the original work on the medieval records about the broads, followed Carrodus. He took the size of a medieval turf as a quarter of a cubic foot for the purposes of rough calculations about how long it would have taken how many men to dig out the basins of the broads.
Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.
The decline of the peat cutting industry: Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.
The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.
The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.
The accounts of the Norwich (Whitefriars) Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.
The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.
Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.
Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.
The advent of the plague: Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.
Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.
“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders”. William Dene
Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.
In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.
“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges” Henry Knighton
The impact of the Black Death: Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.
It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.
The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.
A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.
The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.
Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.
It is a fact that many folk in the distant past could neith read nor write; couple this with the fact that folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation relied on the tongue for telling tales which it was hoped would be remembered and passed on, from generation to generation. As part of this process, and to maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where the detail has been given just that treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as would the same tale told verbally – so maybe past chronicle authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for! But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; but one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close and directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. More importantly, it is about the person who, it was said, paid for its construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might call it – found root around the time of 1422 when Gate was built. But first, some facts:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the king gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich. Sir Thomas was a generous patron and one of his legacies can still be seen most clearly in his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life!
When it comes to legends, you would think that their themes would rely more on history books and the information, if not facts therein. In the case of Erpingham, this legend, of which we speak, would have made reference to the fact that Sir Thomas was against Henry le Dispencer, Bishop of Norwich. For instance, in efforts to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, Sir Thomas managed to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against the Despenser, who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV. As it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. When the King Richard II was disposed of, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Add to this the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped the future Henry V to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
The result of these acts was that a serious breach of trust opened up between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit! Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas then decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whiefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him. In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor martis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse which. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, ca.1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
The Wash is a large bay on the east coast of England that lies between the counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. It is one of the largest estuaries in the United Kingdom and is fed by the rivers Witham, Welland, Steeping, Nene and the Great Ouse. Collecting 15% of the water that drains from the countries lands it is the second largest inter-tidal, uncovered when the tide is out, mudflats in Great Britain.
People have lived on the surrounding fertile land for centuries and it was this stretch of water that the Vikings used as a major route to invade East Anglia between 865 and the start of the Norman Conquest. The Wash was given the name of Metaris Aestuarium, meaning the reaping/mowing/cutting off estuary during the first century by Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman astrologer and mathematician. The Romans built large embankments that protected the land and prevented flooding, but they had all but disappeared by the end of the fifth century. In later years Dutch engineers began a large scale land reclamation and drainage project, this has continued on and off over the years.
It is the Wash that plays host to an interesting and somewhat speculative incident in history, the story of how, in 1216, King John lost England’s crown jewels in the murky water of the estuary.
John was not a popular king, previous to his unfortunate accident he had lost much of England’s lands in France, been excommunicated and forced to sign the Magna Carta. The following year the king broke his word, this action was the starting point of the First Barons’ War. John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle. Later retreating from the French invasion, John took a safe route around the marshy area of the Wash to avoid the rebel held area of East Anglia. In the October of 1216, John travelled from Spalding in Lincolnshire to a town where he was well liked, Bishops Lynn, now Kings Lynn in Norfolk a town that he had previously granted a royal charter.
It was here that he was taken ill with dysentery and decided not to continue the journey. According to Kings Lynn’s Borough Council, it was on the 12th of October that the king left the town, taking the route via Wisbech sending his baggage, plus the jewels on what he thought was the quicker route across the mouth of the Wash. The Wash was much wider than it is today, the sea reached as far as Wisbeach and the inland town of Long Sutton was on the coast and was then a port. Up to three thousand of the kings entourage were carrying the royal wardrobe and the whole of the kingdoms treasury. At low tide the conditions of the causeway were wet and muddy and the wagons moved too slowly and sank into the mud engulfing the kings most valuable possessions. The men of the train struggled with the trunks whilst others pulled at the horses to encourage movement but eventually everything was covered by the incoming tide. The accident probably took place between the tiny hamlet of Walpole Cross Keys and what we now call Sutton Bridge that crosses the River Nene.
But what of the kings treasure? Is it buried centuries deep under Sutton Bridge?
The kings journey continued to Swineshead Abby, near Boston in Lincolnshire, were his health became worse and where legend has it that he was poisoned by a monk called Brother Simon who stole the jewels and made his way out of England with Europe as his destination. Another interesting take on the loss of the king’s treasurers is that they were not lost at all and that the king was using the jewels as security, arranging for their ‘loss’ before they arrived at their destination and using the Wash as a ruse. There seems to be no written documentation to give credence to these two facts so they must remain what they probably are, just tall tales.
On the run from the barons, the loss of the kingdoms ‘treasury’ may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, which affected his health and state of mind. It was either on his journey or during his one night stay at Sleaford Castle that he heard of the loss of the treasure, his health continued to deteriorate and following his arrival at Newark Castle, the king died on the 18th or 19th October 1216. He didn’t live to see his English barons switch their allegiance taking the side of the new king, his nine year old son Henry.
John is yet another English king who has suffered from bad press over the years, he was no hero, he was vengeful and untrusting and is it any wonder, as a child he received no support from warring parents, no support from a self obsessed brother and as king no support from his people, what chance did he have? W L Warren in his book ‘King John’ seems to sum up fairly accurately the cause of his troubled reign.
“talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the half-heartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.”
Since 1216 there has been nearly eight hundred years of silt deposited over all the gold and silver plate, the coins and the jewelry and it is highly unlikely that this treasure will ever be found. Nottingham University did undertake some work trying to discover the causeway that King John’s royal train may have passed over. No doubt, other interested parties will search in the future and maybe they may well find something. But intriguing questions remain – did this event ever happen at all; and did ‘Bad’ King John ‘arrange’ for his treasure tto disappear for reasons only he knew?
There are two contemporary accounts, one by Roger of Wendover, an English chronicler who died in 1236 and one by Ralph of Coggeshall, an English monk and chronicler who died in 1227. Both were writing at the time of the loss. Roger of Wendover writes rather melodramatically and calls it a major disaster, he writes:
‘the ground opened up in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything’
Ralph of Coggeshall refers to it as more of a misadventure, stating that it was not the whole of the royal baggage train that was lost but the vanguard who carried household items, church and holy relics, but not the whole of the treasury. Indeed, some valuable items, belonging to the king of England, did get lost in the Wash, but not treasure as some would imagine. There was no large chest overflowing with coins, necklaces and gold goblets, only kitchen equipment and finery collected from churches. As Coggeshall suggested maybe the real treasure was in second train that never started its journey across the Wash which eventually ended its days thrown in among the new king, Henry III’s treasury
FOOTNOTE: In the mid fourteenth century there was a Norfolk gentleman by the name of Robert Tiptoft. He, quite suddenly so they say, became very wealthy as a result of finding the King’s treasure and not handing it back to the crown where it rightfully belonged. Now, here lays another Tale!
During the medieval period the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was the second most popular destination for pilgrims in England after Canterbury. It was also one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims across Europe. Pilgrims flocked to visit the small Norfolk village of Little Walsingham, and the pilgrims’ route from the European continent took them through the port of King’s Lynn.
One popular gathering place for pilgrims en route to Little Walsingham was the Red Mount Chapel in King’s Lynn. The chapel was built in 1485 as a wayside chapel for pilgrims landing at King’s Lynn; a place to stop and pray before undertaking the overland journey to Walsingham, or to pray before leaving England after a visit to the shrine. It was known as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount The Walks.
It was built by Robert Currance from June 1483. In 1485 the Benedictine prior of St Margaret’s (now King’s Lynn Minster) was granted a lease on the land. The upper chapel was added in 1506, possibly by Simon Clerk and John Wastel, the mason responsible for King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.
The Benedictine Priory was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1537. Surprisingly, the chapel was not destroyed, though it was later robbed of tiles and bricks for building materials. In 1586 it was converted into a study for the vicar of St Margaret’s church. During the Civil War it was used to store gunpowder, and during an outbreak of plague in 1665 it was used a a charnel house. Around 1780 the chapel was used as a stable, then in 1783 it was converted into an astronomical observatory.
The chapel narrowly survived a bombing raid in 1942 when German bombs fell in The Walks nearby. After the war it was used briefly as a place for inter-denominational worship but this ceased when the local Catholic church found the terms of the lease too costly. Now restored, the Chapel is opened to the public during summer months.
The Red Mount Chapel only served as a religious building for just about 50 years of its history.
WHAT TO SEE
The striking chapel is one of the most peculiar late medieval Gothic structures in England. It is built to an octagonal plan, and stands three storeys high. It is supported by buttresses rising two storeys, and each buttress is pierced by a hole that forms a statue niche. It is made of two concentric drums, rising over a barrel-vaulted cellar. Brick staircases run inside the wall formed by the two drums. The two staircases run counter-wise to each other, arriving at the chapel antechamber from opposite directions.
The bottom two storeys are made of red brick, but the top storey is built from stone. It was probably added several decades after the base.
There is a priest’s room and two chapels, a lower chapel and an upper chapel. The upper chapel is decorated with a stunning fan-vaulted ceiling in ornate late Perpendicular Gothic style. The ceiling has been likened to the famous vaulted ceiling at King’s College Chapel, which is not surprising if the same master mason was involved in both.
On the internal walls is graffiti dating back to 1639 and by the entrance door is a plaque reading, ‘Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount 1485‘. The chapel stands atop a mysterious mound thought to be the remains of an early Norman motte and bailey fortification.
The Red Mount Chapel forms part of King’s Lynn’s ‘Pilgrimage Trail’, following the route taken by medieval pilgrims. Modern pilgrims still take the route followed by pilgrims centuries before.
The chapel is open two days a week from spring through autumn, with an extra day at the height of summer. When closed, the Chapel’s unusual exterior structure can be viewed from within King’s Lynn public park known as The Walks, a short stroll from the historic town centre.
A very short distance away is a preserved section of medieval town walls and the Guannock Gate, part of the town’s medieval defences. The gate and the town wall held firm against a Civil War siege by Parliamentary soldiers. The Parliamentary army could not breach the defences, but lack of supplies eventually forced the Royalist defenders of King’s Lynn to surrender.
Red Mount Chapel Address: The Walks, London Road, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England
It does not take too much imagination to create a 15th or 16th century scene where the condemned are seen walking from their place of imprisonment in Norwich Castle or the City’s Guildhall jail, through the streets and past the Cathedral towards Bishopsbridge and the place of execution beyond. Unquestionably, the route taken would be thronged with the inquisitive, those who were sympathetic, others who were downright hostile and some who were simply curious but with no feelings one way or the other. The parade of unfortunates would eventually preceed over the ancient Bridge and into a chalk pit on the other side of the river Wensum. There the faggots would be piled high and ready. The Church, having handed over the condemned to the secular authorities, would step out of the limelight whilst the executions took place – burning the condemned ‘at the stake’. The Church’s preferred way was to claim the authority to sentence but not kill – it kept things neat and tidy! As for those on the wrong side of the Church’s principles and laws well, they were disposed of. In Norwich they went to the chalk pits, for no other reason than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates was ‘Lollards’.
Just Who Were The Lollards?
We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at John Wycliffe and who he was; born sometime in the 1320’s, becoming young Curate at Ludgershall in Wiltshire and dying there of natural causes on 31st December, 1384. He was buried in the churchyard.
Wycliffe was an English Christian theologian who became popular for translating the Bible into vernacular (common) English in 1382. During this time, the Bible was usually only available in Latin, the language used by the Church and the Upper Classes. Many regular men and women were therefore not able to read the Bible for themselves. Wycliffe wanted to change that and he did so by translating the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) into the people’s common language. As professor of theology at Oxford University, Wycliffe also challenged the Catholic Church on numerous points of doctrine. He felt that the Church was too institutionalised and had become corrupt. He promoted a personal type of Christianity – one that emphasised piety, humility and simplicity.
After Wycliffe had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and afraid that his grave would become a religious shrine, Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln and acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V, ordered officials to exhume the bones, burn them, and scatter the ashes on the River Swift. Thereafter, events saw the beginning of what was to be a conserted persecution of Lollardy over a large area of England.
The Lollards were part of a movement that existed from the mid-14th century and up to the English Reformation, inspired, if not led, by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Lollards’ demands, in line with Wycliffe’s thinking, were primarily for the reform of Western Christianity and in this they had much in common with the Protestants who would follow more than a century later. Amongst the many beliefs held by the Lollards, was that the Catholic Church’s practices of baptism and confession were unnecessary for salvation. They also considered that praying to saints and honouring their images was a form of idolatry. Oaths, fasting, and prayers for the dead were thought to have no scriptural basis and they had a poor opinion of the trappings of the Catholic church, including holy bread, holy water, bells, organs, and church buildings.
Definition of the ‘Lollard’ Label: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name Lollard is most likely derived from Middle Dutch lollaerd (“mumbler, mutterer”) and from the verb lollen (“to mutter, mumble”). It appears to be a derisive expression applied to those without an academic background, educated (if at all) only in English, who were known to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular; they were certainly considerably energised by his translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century, “lollard” had come to mean a heretic in general. The lesser known use of the more neutral term “Wycliffite” was generally applied to those of similar opinions, but having an academic background.
Lollard Influence – and the Consequences! Although the Lollard’s influence spread to Lincolnshire to the north and to both the midlands and Wales to the west, the greatest concentration was in the south and East Anglia with Norfolk as an influential hub. These were the heartlands of the large agricultural Estates within which were the bulk of the restlest peasantry – the working classes of the future industrialised England. They, inherently, voiced grievances and complained, not only about religious issues but life in general. It was therefore a short step for them to be labelled troublemakers by the authorities. By the late 14th Century, the unrestful peasants became embroilled in the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler (1381), As a result, Lollardism became associated with tradesmen, peasants, public disorder, licence and excess; these were excuses subsequently used to suppress the movement. Notebly, King Henry IV was persuaded by the Church to pass the 1401 Statute “De Heretics Comburendo” (The Necessity of Burning Heretics). This Act did not, specifically, ban the Lollards, but (a) probibited the translating or owning heretical versions of the Bible and (b) authorised death by burning for all heretics.
By 1395, the Lollards had their own ministers and were winning popular support but were to be subjected to extreme measures of persecution. Throughout England they, increasingly, were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and frequently burnt at the stake as heretics. Clearly, the religious and secular authorities were strongly opposed to the them and a primary early opponent was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ably assisted by none other than Henry le Despenser of Norwich of whom the Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham praised for his zeal! In 1410, John Badby, a layman and craftsman who refused to renounce his Lollardy was burnt at the stake; he was the first layman to suffer capital punishment in England for the crime of heresy. John Foxes Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxes Martyrs, tells many of their stories although with a strong anti-Catholic bias.
The Norwich Heresy Trials of 1428 to 1431: These trials saw fifty-one men and nine women prosecuted for heresy – four were priests: John Midelton, vicar of Halvergate; John Cupper, vicar of Tunstall; Robert Cavell, parish chaplain of Bungay; and Master Robert Berte of Bury St Edmunds, chaplain. This, and mush more, is contained in a surviving manuscript from the Westminster Diocesan Archives MS. B.2, which is considered to be perhaps the most important record of heresy trials in the British Isles before the Reformantion. This manuscript is also of local interest because it is by far the most important record of Lollardy in East Anglia. It shows the extent of heresy at an early date in this area, which produced few known Lollards, before John Oldcastle’s Revolt – or after 1431 when the trials ended. The evidence also clearly offsets East Anglia’s reputation as an exceptionally ‘High Church’ area in the late Middle Ages and helps to explain why the eastern region became a Puritan stronghold.
Thus we learn, from the Norwich Heresy Trials Manuscript, of William White, a priest from Kent who had moved to Ludham to preach dissent; also of fellow Lollard’s John (or William?) Waddon and Hugh Pye. White’s trial took place on 13 September 1428, followed by those of Wadden and Pye; all three were burnt at Lollard’s Pit later that month. How bravely they met their fate is not known but it was reported that some people had a habit of emptying the contents of their chamber pots over the condemed as they walked along Bishopsgate.
Then there was Margery Baxter from Martham who was put on trial in October 1429. A Johanna Clifland testified against Baxter stating, amongst other things, that she had expressed a variety of unorthodox sentiments, including speaking out against the traditions of sanctioned marriage, fasting for religious days, and the swearing of religious oaths. Johanna Clifland accused Baxter of telling a friend that the bread consecrated in the mass was not the very body of Christ:
“You believe ill because, if every such sacrament is God and the true body of Christ, there are countless gods because a thousand and more priests every day make a thousand such gods and afterwards eat these gods and, having eaten them, discharge them through their posteriors into repulsively smelling toilets, where you can find plenty of such gods if you want to look. Therefore, know for certain that that which you call the sacrament of the altar will never by the grace of God be my God, for such a sacrament was falsely made and deceitfully ordained by priests in the church to induce idolatry in simple people because this sacrament is only material bread”.
Baxter also went on to argue that “the images which stand in the churches come from the Devil so that the people worshipping those images commit idolatry”. Then, echoing foundational Lollard beliefs, Baxter also opposed the wealth of Catholic clergymen and the practice of confession to church officials. However, despite such statements and confessions, Margery Baxter was sentenced not to be burnt, but to receive four Sunday floggings as she walked barefoot around her parish church.
It was the case that not all of the Norwich accused were condemed to be burnt at Lollards Pit. Nearly half the total tried ended up, like Margery Baxter, being flogged in either their parish churches or the adjoining cemeteries or, in the local market places on market day. Occasionally, sentences would be carried out in Norwich, in its market place or in the Cathedral church or Cloisters. Clearly the ecclesiastical authorities were eager to make the penances known to the public. Frequently, a penitent was given precise instructions that he, or she, was to appear bare-footed, bare-headed and clad in simple clothing, carrying a candle which they had to offer at the high altar of their parish church as soon as they had completed their penance.
Persecution of heretics in Norwich tailed away after 1431 but was to return in 1531 when the Reformation (1517 – 1648) ensured further persecutions in Norwich – they had, of course, continued in other areas of England during this ‘tailed off’ period during when there was a general respite of about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the Lollards entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London and Canterbury. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century and were to be still burnt at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547). In 1519, seven people were burnt in Coventry and within the next few years there were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.
One of the first trials in Norwich during 1531 was that of Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like William White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he had recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recant when initially faced with execution, returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Richard NIX or NYKKE, (circa 1447–1535) of Norwich had him re-arrested and, thereafter, took a leading part in the execution of Thomas Bilney – who, by the way, had belonged to Nix’s old college. It was said, with some justice, that Nix burnt Bilney on his own authority, without waiting for the royal warrant. There was no mercy. Bilney was typically tried and convicted by the Church but given to the agents of the State for execution.
On the morning of his execution, Bilney was unwavering from his fate. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, Bilney raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake. As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt appeared bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.” With that dying prayer of faith, Bilney sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal”.
The climax to burning at the stake came during the reign of Mary (1553-58). Up to 50 people died during this time, under the religious conservative Bishop Hopton. In 1557 pewterers wife Elizabeth Cooper and Simon Miller, of Kings Lynn, were executed. Cooper had interrupted a service at St Andrews to retract her earlier recantation of Protestantism. As the two went to Lollards Pit, a Cecily Ormes declared her support for them.
Cecily Ormes was the wife of Mr. Edmund Ormes, worsted weaver of St. Lawrence, Norwich. At the death of Miller and Elizabeth Cooper she had said that “she would pledge them of the same cup they drank of”. For these words the civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice but to take her to the chancellor, who would have discharged her if she had promised to go to church and to keep her belief to herself. As she would not consent to this, the chancellor urged that he had shown more lenity to her than any other person, and was unwilling to condemn her, because she was an ignorant foolish woman; to this she replied, (perhaps with more shrewdness than he expected,) that however great his desire might be to spare her sinful flesh, it could not equal her inclination to surrender it up in so great a quarrel. The chancellor then pronounced the fiery sentence, and September 23, 1558, she was taken to Lollard Pit at eight o’clock in the morning.
After declaring her faith to the people, she laid her hand on the same stake at which Miller and Cooper had been burnt and said, “Welcome, thou cross of Christ.” Her hand was sooted in doing this and she at first wiped it only to again welcomed and embraced the stake. After the tormentors had unhurriedly built up the faggots and kindled the fire, she prayed then crossed her hands upon her breast, and ‘looking upwards with the utmost serenity, she withstood the fiery furnace. Her hands continued gradually to rise until the sinews were dried, and then they fell. She uttered no sigh of pain, but yielded her life’.
Note: There used to be a local rumour that had Sir Thomas Erpingham listed as a Lollard, for which his ‘penance’ was to build the Erpingham gate, entrance to the Cathedral precinct in Norwich!
Why did Norwich choose that particular ‘Pit’ site? What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was in the distant past, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with part of the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond as something approaching an industrial site. Early chalk workings were dug out there to provide foundations for the nearby Cathedral; hence the creation of a Pit in the first place. Also, its position was, conveniently, just outside the city walls and therefore a good place to dispose of those who had been cast out by the Church. The approach to it was directly along Bishopsgate. linking the Cathedral and city centre with the Pit which lay opposite Bishop’s Bridge.
Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone. Today, the only clue of where it once was is the Lollards Pit Public House on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road. It marks the approximate position of the old chalk pits.
The aftermath: For many years after the exercutions ended the area surrounding Lollards Pit was shunned by local people, many of whom feared evil connotations. Later it became a tannery, where wherrymen used to load and unload cargo, also it was a convenient place to dump the City’s rubbish and later it was used as a camp for gipsies. In modern times, as the area became more developed, local children would play there, unbothered by the ghosts of the past.
Today the Lollards Pit (formerly the Bridge House) pub has a plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is sometimes claimed that eerie ghostly screams may be heard in the pub late at night. Claims also refer to terrified witnesses having seen ghostly black figures in the pub’s corridor and on one occasion, a shocking apparition of a woman engulfed in flames was claimed to have been seen before she quickly vanished into thin air; this suggests that, maybe, spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!
On the other side of Riverside Road, on the riverbank, is another commemorative plaque which hails the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died so horribly in Lollards Pit centuries ago.
FOOTNOTE: No one is absolutely sure where the Lollard’s Pit was situated; Some argue that it was not by the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House but under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, others say it does indeed lay beneath the back bar of the Pub, whilst others put the case for it being below the site once occupied by Godfrey’s Store – or even underneath Chalk Hill House on Rosary Road. All close to one another.